Selfless Consciousness Without Faith

January 6, 2007

I recently spent an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon. It was an infernally hot day, and the sanctuary was crowded with Christian pilgrims from many continents. Some gathered silently in the shade, while others staggered in the noonday sun, taking photographs.  As I sat and gazed upon the surrounding hills gently sloping to an inland sea, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts.  In an instant, the sense of being a separate self—an “I” or a “me”—vanished. Everything was as it had been—the cloudless sky, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water—but I no longer felt like I was separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.

The experience lasted just a few moments, but returned many times as I gazed out over the land where Jesus is believed to have walked, gathered his apostles, and worked many of his miracles. If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly interpret this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God, or felt the descent of the Holy Spirit.But I am not a Christian.

If I were a Hindu, I might talk about “Brahman,” the eternal Self, of which all individual minds are thought to be a mere modification. But I am not a Hindu. If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the “dharmakaya of emptiness” in which all apparent things manifest. But I am not a Buddhist.

As someone who is simply making his best effort to be a rational human being, I am very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions from experiences of this sort. The truth is, I experience what I would call the “selflessness of consciousness” rather often, wherever I happen to meditate—be it in a Buddhist monastery, a Hindu temple, or while having my teeth cleaned. Consequently, the fact that I also had this experience at a Christian holy site does not lend an ounce of credibility to the doctrine of Christianity.

There is no question that people have “spiritual” experiences (I use words like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, because they come to us trailing a long tail of metaphysical debris). Every culture has produced people who have gone off into caves for months or years and discovered that certain deliberate uses of attention—introspection, meditation, prayer—can radically transform a person’s moment to moment perception of the world. I believe contemplative efforts of this sort have a lot to tell us about the nature of the mind.

There are, in fact, several points of convergence between the modern sciences of the mind—psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, etc.—and some of our contemplative traditions. Both lines of inquiry, for instance, give us good reasons to believe that the conventional sense of self is a kind of cognitive illusion. While most of us go through life feeling like we are the thinker of our thoughts and the experiencer of our experience, from the perspective of science we know that this is a false view.  There is no discrete self or ego lurking like a minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. There is no region of cortex or stream of neural processing that occupies a privileged position with respect to our personhood. There is no unchanging “center of narrative gravity” (to use fellow “On Faith” panelist Daniel Dennett’s fine phrase).

In subjective terms, however, there seems to be one—to most of us, most of the time. But our contemplative traditions (Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc.) also attest, to varying degrees and with greater or lesser precision, that this point of view is vulnerable to inquiry.

Consider what the brain is doing as a matter of conscious representation. What are we conscious of? We are conscious of the world; we are conscious of our bodies in the world; and we are—we think—conscious of our selves in our bodies.  After all, most of us don’t feel merely identical to our bodies.  We feel, most of the time, like we are riding around inside our bodies, as though we are an inner subject that can utilize the body as a kind of object. This last representation is an illusion, and can be dispelled as such. Selflessness is a quality of consciousness that can be subjectively discovered. Indeed, it is in plain view in every present moment, and yet it remains difficult to see. If this seems like a paradox, consider the following analogy:

The optic nerve passes through the retina, so as to create a point in each of our visual fields where we are effectively blind. Most of us had this demonstrated to us in school: one marks a piece of paper, closes an eye, and then moves the paper into a position where the mark disappears. Of course, only a small minority of people in history have been aware of their blind spots. And even those of us who know about them go for decades without noticing them as a matter of direct perception. And yet they are always there, available to be noticed.

There is an analogous insight into the nature of consciousness—too near to us, in a sense, to be easily seen. For most people it requires considerable training in meditation to catch a glimpse of it. But it is possible to notice that consciousness—that in you which is aware of your experience in this moment—does not feel like a self. It does not feel like “I.”

As a critic of religious faith, I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer is: many things and nothing. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive elements. Nothing need replace the idea that Jesus will return to earth wielding magic powers and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire. Nothing need replace the notion that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are baseless, dangerous, and demeaning ideas.

But what about ethics and spiritual experience?  For many, religion still appears the only vehicle for what is most important in life—love, compassion, morality, and self-transcendence. To change this, we need a way of talking about human well-being that is as unconstrained by religious dogma as science is.

As I write, the second in a series of meditation retreats for scientists is just getting underway, sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute. One hundred scientists will spend the next week in silent meditation, to see whether, and to what degree, this technique of sustained introspection can inform their thinking about the human mind. There are also several neuroscience labs now studying the effects of meditation on the brain. Western interest in meditation has opened a dialogue between scientists and contemplatives about how the data of first-person experience can be brought into the charmed circle of third-person experiment. The goal is to understand the possibilities of human well-being a little bit better than we do at present.

I believe that most people are interested in spiritual life, whether they realize it or not.  Every one of us has been born to seek happiness in a condition that is fundamentally unreliable. What you get, you lose. We are all (at least tacitly) interested in discovering just how happy a person can be in such a circumstance. On the question of how to be most happy, the contemplative life has some important insights to offer.

January 8, 2007

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